What If Apple Is Peaking?

I've been taking my lumps for hopping off the Apple (NAS: AAPL) bandwagon recently.

As a bull of the class act of Cupertino for more than a decade -- even warming up to Apple before it was cool or lucrative to do so in its pre-iPod state -- doubts are starting to creep in.

What if Steve Jobs isn't replaceable? What if Apple's most recent disappointing quarter is the new trend? What if Google's (NAS: GOOG) Android continues to gobble up smartphone market share, eventually eating into Apple's growth and bleeding over into tablets? What if falling prices force Apple either to slash margins to remain competitive or to retreat back to its familiar place as a premium player with a smaller audience?

Apple fans will counter that these are tired questions that have been answered in Apple's favor. I don't see it that way, and I recently offered up six reasons why I'm not holding out for an Apple rally this year.

I'm not alone.

Don't look down
Morgan Keegan's Tavis McCourt issued a problematic analyst note yesterday, scaling back his price target from $530 to $513. That's not the worrisome part. McCourt's an Apple bull who's sticking to his outperform rating. If his target implies that Apple will be trading 25% higher a year from now -- instead of 30% -- it's obviously a smart decision to hold on to what should be another year of market-thumping performance.

Apple will rally. I will be wrong.

However, the thorny part of his note rests in how McCourt is scaling back his unit shipments on iPads and to a lesser extent Macs for the fiscal first quarter that ended last week. He now sees Apple moving just 13 million iPads during the holiday quarter, well below his earlier 16 million estimate. He is also now going from targeting 4.9 million Macs to 4.8 million. He is upping his iPhone tally, as many analysts have done since October's introduction of the iPhone 4S.

McCourt isn't the only analyst to shave iPad projections, but he's one of the first to connect the reduction -- in part -- with the success of Amazon.com's (NAS: AMZN) Kindle Fire. Amazon clearly has a hit with its Android-fueled tablet, selling "millions" according to the company and between 3 million and 5 million according to analysts.

Many have assumed that Amazon's petite and somewhat limited device -- selling for just 40% the price of the cheapest iPad 2 -- won't eat into Apple's tablet sales. It's a booming niche, and the Kindle Fire will simply broaden the market with its entry-level gadget.

Well, McCourt feels that as many as 2 million of the Kindle Fires sold would have resulted in iPad 2 sales if it wasn't around. In his opinion -- and that's all that we can really go on at this point -- iPad sales are suffering because of Amazon's aggressively priced tablet.

Growth is still there
If we look at Apple's fiscal first quarter of 2011, the tech world's most valuable company sold 4.1 million Macs and 7.3 million iPads. Even under McCourt's hosed-down scenario, Apple is growing reasonably well in the otherwise moribund PC market, and tablet sales are nearly doubling. The number of iPhones should also nearly double.

However, my concerns were never limited to a single holiday quarter. I am more worried about what will happen as the year plays out.

When the iPad 3 rolls out in the coming weeks -- and it will -- Apple is unlikely to ignore the disruptive noise that's swelling on the low end. It's not just that Amazon is selling millions of Kindle Fires at $199 apiece. Many of the tablets that originally rolled out at iPad-esque prices -- if not higher -- are getting cheaper.

In some cases, it's just a fire sale. Research In Motion's (NAS: RIMM) move to sell its remaining PlayBook tablets at $299 this week is a joke. RIM is desperate, and this is what desperate companies do to remain relevant. However, after watching RIM, webOS, and Android tablets fly out the door when they're priced at roughly half of an iPad's ransom, a ton of non-IOS gadgets flooding the market can't be sitting well with Apple.

I'm not the only one who has been predicting an iPad price cut for 2012, and it will likely happen by slashing the price of the iPad 2 once the iPad 3 hits the market instead of retiring the iPad 2 outright. However, what if the iPad 3 isn't a huge evolutionary step up for the platform and folks stick to cheaper iPad 2 devices? Sony (NYS: SNE) has seen folks cling to cheaper PlayStation and PS2 gaming systems when pricier models came out. It may be sacrilegious to compare Apple to Sony, but hasn't Apple also evolved into a consumer electronics company for the masses?

The iPhone 5 to the rescue
Lower iPad prices -- and potentially lower Mac prices -- won't be enough to stall Apple.

Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu argues this morning that the iPhone 5, and not the iPad 3 or likely full-blown TV, will be Apple's real growth catalyst this year.

Hey, I agree. If the iPhone 4S has been a hit, just imagine what Apple can do with a real game-changer. However, as Android devices continue to multiply like guppies -- or Tribbles -- do we really know where consumer tastes and developer attention will be once Apple gets around to updating its handsets at some point this calendar year?

There are more uncertainties in Apple's future than you might think. Even if we're eyeing a blowout holiday quarter, growth should decelerate substantially for the balance of the year until we see where the market's at when the iPhone 5 is introduced.

The odds are clearly in the favor of the bulls, but Apple's not as cheap as you probably think.

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At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Google, and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google, Apple, and Amazon.com.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz calls them as he sees them. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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